In their own Image

By Hasan Sahan

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Last November there was a very significant addition to London’s thriving, small-scale festival scene. It celebrated the culture of a people struggling to survive against the competing interests of four nation states – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Kurdish people have been subject to military repression, political marginalisation and displacement since the beginning of the century, and as a result many are now scattered through the countries of Europe. More than fifty thousand have settled in London, many in the locality of the Rio Cinema in the Borough of Hackney, where the first Kurdish Film Festival took place. Organised by a group of Kurdish film enthusiasts, the event brought the community together, affirming the Kurdish language and experience through its representation in cinema.

yol-kazim-oz.jpgYol, 1982

With the support of Kurdish businesses in London and the London Film and Video Development Agency over twenty films were screened, an eclectic programme of feature films, documentaries and shorts, most made by Kurdish film directors, others chosen for their focus on the Kurdish predicament. Amongst the eleven feature films were Bahman Ghobadi’s critically acclaimed A Time for Drunken Horses, and Samira Makmalbouf’s extraordinary fable Blackboards. Two films were also screened to reclaim the legacy of the Kurds’ most famous director, Yilmaz Guney; The Herd (1978) and Yol (The Journey) (1982). Ironically, Guney is often represented as Turkish although he spent large parts of his life jailed in Turkey for his political and cultural opposition to the state. Guney’s colleague, Ahmet Soner, attended the festival bringing with him his documentary Adana-Paris which charts the director’s journey from his hometown into exile in Paris where he eventually died in 1984.

The festival opened with the premiere of an award-winning film made in Turkey by Kazim Oz. The Photograph, follows the stories of two young men travelling to Turkish Kurdistan by bus. They sit next to each other, each of them hiding the reason for his journey from the other. Who are they? Where are they going? A strange kind of proximity develops between them, and gradually it becomes clear that one is a Kurdish militant, the other a conscript soldier in the Turkish army. The film started with a budget of $100, and gradually gathered funds for its completion, not least from the Mesopotamian Cultural Centre in Istanbul, the only institution in Turkey, actively engaged in the promotion of Kurdish culture. This was the first feature length film which they had supported. Nonetheless, the director described how the film had to be made ‘imaginatively’ to avoid revealing its true subject, and since its completion it has not been allowed any publicity or an official release in Turkey although it recently won the Best Film prize at the Milan Film Festival, 2001.

kurdish-film-festival-programme.jpgKurdish Film Festival programme

Since there are no Kurdish film schools, no centres for Kurdish film-making and most significantly no Kurdish state, some participants at the festival’s main debate, What is Kurdish Cinema?, questioned whether it was premature to speak of a Kurdish Cinema as such. Hiner Saleem, the director of two features, including Beyond our Dreams (2001), felt that it was impossible to make comparison with other cinemas, but although still in its infancy and although most films are necessarily co-productions, a tradition of Kurdish Cinema is inevitably emerging. The very existence of such a number of films in the Kurdish language at one event was a huge affirmation of our culture and experience. Apart from this festival there is only one other in south Kurdistan, in Sulimanyia, so there was great interest from the Kurdish satellite TV channel, Medya, and many Kurdish filmmakers arrived, unexpectedly, from various parts of the world to participate.

The objective of this festival is to assert the Kurds’ own identity whilst at the same time showing their diverse cultural influences. It was possible thanks to the support of the Rio Cinema which actively encourages events sponsored by members of its local community. It has already helped to set up a Turkish Film Festival which is now in its ninth year, and I hope that the Kurdish Festival will become equally successful. As a foreigner it is easy to feel excluded from the financial and cultural institutions around you but this festival, not least through its masterclasses with established directors, might stimulate young Kurds both in the UK and other European countries to use film or video to express themselves. In years to come I hope we will be able to screen some of the results.


Hasan Sahan was born in North Kurdistan in 1972. He came to the UK in 1989 and studied Documentary Research at the London College of Printing. He is currently making a documentary about British propaganda in the Middle East.